Saturday, January 31, 2009

A Well-Credentialed (?) Ambassador

From the Irish Times:

DEAGLÁN DE BRÉADÚN, Political Correspondent

PROMINENT IRISH-AMERICAN businessman Dan Rooney, owner and chairman of the Pittsburgh Steelers football team, is widely tipped to be the next US ambassador to Ireland, in succession to Thomas C Foley.

The appointment is expected to be announced on or near St Patrick’s Day, in line with tradition. Other names featuring in speculation are Caroline Kennedy, daughter of the late president John F Kennedy, and leading trade unionist John Sweeney of the AFL-CIO.

In an interview with a local TV station in Pittsburgh this week, Mr Rooney, a co-founder of the Ireland Fund charity with Dr Tony O’Reilly, was asked if he would like to be appointed to the job. He replied: “It would be interesting.”

When it was put to him that he had all the right credentials, he answered: “I have the credentials, there’s no doubt about that.”

A well-placed Irish-American source commented last night: “If Dan wants it, Dan gets it.”

Now aged 76, Mr Rooney is hale and hearty and flies his own plane. He was an early backer of Barack Obama’s campaign for the presidency.

According to the Irish Voice newspaper, “He was so impressed by Obama’s oratory back in January that he called his son Jim and told him he was going to work for the Democratic candidate.

“At the time Obama was an outsider, looking as if he was going to get crushed by the Clinton machine. Rooney, however, saw something he really liked.

“In April he wrote a long letter to his friends and associates backing Obama, at a time when Clinton was vastly more popular in Pennsylvania.

“Then in late October, during Obama’s last trip to Pennsylvania, Rooney presented him with a Steelers jersey, a move that drew criticism from some life-long conservative Steelers fans.”

With his deeply-held traditional Catholic views and opposition to abortion, Mr Rooney is not a typical Obama supporter but he has a much-praised record of hiring African-Americans in Pittsburgh.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Explosive Allegations Reported by ABC News

ABC News is reporting this bad news this evening.

The CIA's station chief at its sensitive post in Algeria is under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department for allegedly raping at least two Muslim women who claim he laced their drinks with a knock-out drug, U.S. law enforcement sources tell ABC News.

Officials say the 41-year old CIA officer, a convert to Islam, was ordered home by the U.S. Ambassador, David Pearce, in October after the women came forward with their rape allegations in September.

The discovery of more than a dozen videotapes showing the CIA officer engaged in sex acts with other women has led the Justice Department to broaden its investigation to include at least one other Arab country, Egypt, where the CIA officer had been posted earlier in his career, according to law enforcement officials.

The U.S. State Department referred questions to the Department of Justice, which declined to comment.

"It has the potential to be quite explosive if it's not handled well by the United States government," said Isobel Coleman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who specializes in women's issues in the Middle East.

If the Ambassador found cause to send him home, I have to assume the allegations against the station chief aren't frivolous.

This is so wrong on so many levels, not least of which is the counterintelligence one.

Here's a detail that really struck me:

One of the alleged victims reportedly said she met the CIA officer at a bar in the U.S. embassy and then was taken to his official station chief residence where she said the sexual assault took place.

Embassy bar and embassy residence? Let's just say that the U.S. embassy community members in Algiers live in very close proximity to each other. The station chief couldn't have expected that to go unnoticed. Did he think he could explain it away as operational activity?


Update: ABC News has now posted the Affidavit in Support of a Search Warrant for the station chief's laptop computer.


Tidbit: He's the author of a 2002 novel, The People of the Veil, described by as follows:

In the midst of a bloody civil war in Algeria, and left in charge of the American Embassy in Algiers, Consul, Nick Phillips, is forced to make a decision that will have far reaching ramifications. An Islamic revolution is in the process of taking place and based upon information from his friend Sami, an Algerian detective, Nick fears the imminent attack by terrorists on the US Embassy with the goal of killing all Americans. Because of the deteriorating security situation, Nick orders an evacuation of the embassy. Nick goes head to head with Abu Fahad, leader of a violent Islamic terrorist cell, who has already killed the Prime Minister and several senior Algerian leaders, including Nick?s girlfriend?s family. In a race with the ultimate consequences, Nick, Sami, and his girlfriend must escape from terrorists who will stop at nothing to kill them and every other American in Algeria.

The following reader comment was added this evening to the Amazon page on The People of the Veil:

I haven't read it, but I am curious if the brave and so honorable protagonist uses Xanax and Valium to subdue and interrogate ruthless female enemy agents posing as nice, modest women while in Algeria?

If not in this book, perhaps in the sequel, which I understand a CIA operative with embassy cover manages to terribly harm the US reputation, feed Al Qaeda's hate machine, and endanger the lives of countless Americans in the Middle East -- all while having sworn to defend our country? That would be a great story!

A biography of Warren on his publisher's website has these details:

Andrew M. Warren grew up in Chesapeake, Virginia. An expert in Middle Eastern affairs, Mr. Warren served as a Foreign Service Officer for the U.S. State Department (1997-2001); during his tenure, he spent two years in Kuwait at the American Embassy in addition to traveling extensively throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Prior to his service at the State Department, he worked with the National Security Agency. Mr. Warren obtained a Masters Degree in Middle East History and Arabic from Indiana University; and a Bachelor of Arts Degree from Norfolk State University.

Mr. Warren's career in the Foreign Service, and now as an author, has allowed him to fulfill his lifelong dream of combining his myriad of experiences and his love of writing into one career. Mr. Warren injects a cultural, intellectual, psychological realism into his writing that could only have come about by his many years of living and working abroad. He currently resides in New York City.

Prior to his service at the State Department, he worked with the National Security Agency???

U.S. Consulate Jerusalem's Lost Files

So far, this incident appears to be more embarrassing than damaging. Judging by what can be seen in this video, the lost files consist mostly of mildly interesting administrative info, including leave and earnings statements [i.e., pay slips], Marine Security Guard Detachment mess fund records, and account ledgers. There was also one nugget of possibly sensitive information regarding payments to a local activist group. The only classified item was a contact report involving a Marine Security Guard and a local woman.

It's low-level stuff but still potentially exploitable by a hostile intelligence service, which makes this a serious compromise.

The records were lost when the Consulate sold old filing cabinets at a local auction in 2005. The purchaser of the cabinets evidently kept the files until sometime after September 2008 when, out of anger over a (mistaken) news report that a car used in an attack on Israeli soldiers had also been sold at auction by the U.S. Consulate, she took them to Fox News in Jerusalem. Fox News viewed the files before they were returned to the Consulate.

This is by no means the first time sensitive U.S. government materials have been lost when furniture and other surplus items were disposed of. I know of far worse cases, such as these, which occurred so long ago that it's no longer a problem to mention them:

-- In 1986, if I recall the date correctly, WTTG Metromedia News in Washington DC reported that Top Secret documents from the State Department were found at Lorton Reformatory - a now defunct Federal facility for prisoners from the District of Colombia - inside safes that the prisoners were refurbishing under a contract with the General Services Administration.

-- In 1992 (?) the General Accounting Office reported that the Department of Justice had disposed of computers whose hard drives still contained files of the U.S. Marshal Services's witness relocation program for the northeastern United States.

-- One day in 1988 I was having dinner with the U.S. Consul-General in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, when the Consulate duty officer called him to report that a very responsible Mexican citizen was asking how he should return a dozen or so Light Anti-Tank Weapons that he had discovered inside 'empty' shipping containers he had purchased at Fort Bliss, Texas, earlier that day and had unwittingly brought back with him to Mexico.

Nothing nearly so serious was lost in Jerusalem, nevertheless, any sensitive information that goes out of U.S. government control in an overseas environment is potentially damaging. File it away under Lessons Learned, only, next time remember to remove that file before you sell the cabinet.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Happy New Year

The Chinese New Year has begun, and we are now in the Year of the Ox.

I'll have to remember to stop writing "the Year of the Rat" on my checks (as the old joke goes), and also wish a Happy New Year to my office assistant, who is home celebrating today.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Bring Back the USIS Library

As the new administration settles in at the foreign affairs department of the Washington DC area's largest employer, there appears to be a surge of interest in reinvigorating our Public Diplomacy efforts. Personally, I am cheering on those who urge a revival of the American Cultural Center. I wish them success in bringing back the fine old institution of the semi autonomous cultural entity that stood apart from the dread Fortress Embassies.

I always enjoyed spending time in U.S. Information Service Libraries during my travels to diplomatic posts back before the 1999 merger of the U.S. Information Agency into the State Department. They had a nice mini-America feel, and they were clearly effective at cultural outreach. An Indian-born architect I know has told me how the USIS Library he visited as a young boy changed his life. He would sit at the same library table every afternoon to read books, and one day he noticed on the opposite wall a poster of Abraham Lincoln with this quote:

"As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy."

I can imagine how that quote would have struck him, being a citizen of a democratic but far from egalitarian society. I don't think even Gandhi ever said anything similar. (As I would not be an Untouchable, so I would not be a Brahmin? No. Gandhi was a Brahmin.) The sentiment was foreign to his native Hindu culture, and he was fascinated by it. He became an admirer of Lincoln and read everything he could find about him in the Library, which eventually led him to graduate from an American University via its foreign extension campus, and then to emigrate to America and become a citizen.

I doubt he would have had the same experience at one of the smaller and less walk-in-friendly embassy Information Resource Centers that replaced USIS Libraries. Most likely, it would be impossible for a kid to hang around in an IRC day after day to just absorb the atmosphere. Do IRCs even have atmosphere?

What is there to stop a revival of the USIS Library or something close to it? Apparently only two things: concern about their physical security, and certain legal and administrative requirements that, unless waived, call for all offices and agencies under the authority of the Ambassador to be collocated on embassy compounds. Neither problem is insurmountable.

Were I advising the Public Diplomacy bureaucracy, I'd recommend they gather data on the history of attacks on USIS Libraries, Bi-National Centers, American Corners and similar stand-alone public facilities past and present, and see whether the incidence of attacks on them hasn't, over time, been the same as or lower than the incidence of attacks on diplomatic facilities in general. Those results might go a long way toward relieving security concerns.

I'd also advise PD to document the program impacts that occur with collocation. Contrast the measures of program effectiveness for stand-alone public diplomacy facilities - of which there are many, since we still occupy legacy USIS buildings in places where we haven't had new construction since 1999 - with the metrics for those PD facilities that have been collocated under the new embassy construction program. We always hear the claim that program effectiveness is lost when PD facilities are collocated, but I've never seen actual substantiation. Documentation of that sort would be PD's best argument for avoiding collocation in the future.

Here's hoping I'll be able to visit some brand-new American Cultural Centers in all their (old) inviting ambience and downtown locations before many more years go by.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Ballistically Blessed

A random post-Inauguration thought from the Covert Comic:

Seeing our new President take office made me proud to be an American. Truly, we in the United States have been blessed with the most unobtrusive projectile-resistant technology in the world.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Obama's a Leftie

Until I saw him sign a document today I hadn't noticed that Obama is left-handed. That makes him our eighth sinistral President, which is a pretty impressive record for a despised minority group that includes less than ten percent of the U.S. population. The other seven were:

James Garfield, 1881 - 1881
Herbert Hoover, 1929 – 1933
Harry Truman, 1945 – 1953
Gerald Ford, 1974 – 1977
Ronald Reagan, 1981 – 1989
George Bush, 1989 – 1993
Bill Clinton, 1993 – 2001

Off the top of my head I know that presidential candidates John McCain and Ross Perot were also lefties, so there may be some truth to the notion that left-handers are unusually prone to become President.

In his book Right-Hand, Left-Hand, Chris McManus of University College, London, claimed that left-handed people have historically produced an above-average number of high achievers and that left-handers' brains are structured in a way that widens their range of abilities, particularly language abilities. In 2006, researchers at Lafayette College and Johns Hopkins University published a study that found left-handed men are 15 percent richer than right-handed men for those who attended college, and 26 percent richer if they graduated.

Being left-handed myself, I'm pleased to think that we have some kind of advantage over the right-handed majority. I might feel clumsy using scissors and other right-handed products but, by God, I have a better chance than most righties of becoming rich or President!

All New Cabinet Members Take One Step Forward; Hillary, Stand Still

It will be at least one more day before the Clinton Restoration can formally begin. According to a blog post this afternoon in The Atlantic, Senator Cornyn wants to let a little more daylight into the murky dealings of the Clinton Foundation before he will withdraw his objection to Hillary's nomination.

In a letter to Clinton, Cornyn wrote that he remained "deeply troubled" that "America's foreign policy and your diplomatic mission will be encumbered by the sweeping global activities of the Clinton Foundation (the "Foundation")--unless tighter foreign fundraising restrictions and transparency protocols are adopted by your husband's organization." As a matter of public record, he writes, "the President-elect's team shares these concerns and that the Foundation has recently accepted additional transparency measures beyond those previously negotiated with transition officials."

"Put simply, the Foundation's refusal of foreign-source donations while you serve as Secretary of State is in this nation's interest. But I am willing to consider other options to reduce the likelihood of real or perceived conflicts of interest that will result from foreign donations. Senator Lugar has proposed several commonsense disclosure requirements. I concur with many of his proposals and would indeed go further in several instances."

Every other cabinet appointee has already been confirmed.

Inaugural Day: Pomp and Ceremony, or Elder Abuse?

Senator Kennedy , 76 years old and seriously ill with a brain tumor, had a seizure brought on by fatigue. Senator Byrd, 91 years old and with one foot in the grave already, was carried out of the inaugural luncheon unconscious. Vice President Cheney, 67 years old with a pacemaker and multiple heart attacks, had to attend in a wheelchair.

In keeping with tradition, they, along with many other office holders, Supreme Court Justices, and politicians equally old and infirm, attended Inaugural Day events from the crack of dawn until late at night and sat around outdoors for hours on end in 17-degree weather. Is there something wrong with that picture?

The Inaugural Poem Wasn't All That Bad

I kind of liked the Elizabeth Alexander (see her website) poem, even though I'm disposed to dislike modern poetry. She won't make me throw out my T.S. Eliot, but I have to say that Alexander is kinda, sorta, not so bad for a modern poet.

Praise Song for the Day consists of 14 unrhymed three-line stanzas and a one-line coda: "praise song for walking forward in that light." It's mostly imagery, with only a little bit of vulgar politics. Best of all, it was nice and short, taking less than four minutes to read. You can watch her read it here, and can find the text here.

It could have been much, much, worse. Alexander's previous poems include this sort of thing:

Haircut - by Elizabeth Alexander

I get off the IRT in front of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture after riding an early Amtrak from Philly to get a hair cut at what used to be the Harlem "Y" barbershop. It gets me in at ten to ten. Waiting, I eat fish cakes at the Pam Pam and listen to the ladies call out orders: bacon-biscuit twice, scrambled scrambled fried, over easy, grits, country sausage on the side. Hugh is late. He shampoos me, says "I can't remember, Girlfriend, are you tender-headed?" From the chair I notice the mural behind me in the mirror. I know those overlapped sepia shadows, a Renaissance rainforest, Aaron Douglas! Hugh tells me he didn't use primer and the chlorine eats the colors every day. He clips and combs and I tell him how my favorite Douglas is called "Building More Stately Mansions," and he tells me how fly I'd look in a Salt 'n' Pepa 'do, how he trained in Japan.

Clip clip, clip clip. I imagine a whoosh each time my hair lands on the floor and the noises of small brown mammals. I remember, my father! He used to get his hair cut here, learned to swim in the caustic water, played pool and basketball. He cuts his own hair now. My grandfather worked seventy-five years in Harlem building more stately mansions. I was born two blocks away and then we moved.

None of that seems to relate to today. This is not my turf, despite the other grandfather and great-aunt who sewed hearts back into black chests after Saturday night stabbings on this exact corner, the great-uncle who made a mosaic down the street, both grandmothers. What am I always listening for in Harlem? A voice that says, "This is your place, too," as faintly as the shadows in the mural? The accents are unfamiliar; all my New York kin are dead. I never knew Fats Waller but what do I do with knowing he used to play with a ham and a bottle of gin atop his piano; never went to Olivia's House of Beauty but I know Olivia, who lives in St. Thomas, now, and who exactly am I, anyway, finding myself in these ghostly, Douglas shadows while real ghosts walk around me, talk about my stuff in the subway, yell at me not to butt the line, beg me, beg me, for my money?

What is black culture? I read the writing on the wall on the side of the "Y" as I always have: "Harlem Plays the Best Ball in the World." I look in the mirror and see my face in the mural with a new haircut. I am a New York girl; I am a New York woman; I am a flygirl with a new hair cut in New York City in a mural that is dying every day.

Did I just say she's not so bad? Uh ... let me think that over.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Barack Obama: Gun Salesman of the Year

I'd seen news reports of a firearms buying frenzy in advance of the Obama administration, but not until today did I see Obama's image used to advertise guns and gun accessories. I was browsing on-line stores to price night sights for my Glock - not out of any fear of new gun controls, but just because I want night sights - and saw the banner above for the "Coronation Sale."

This is one kind of economic stimulus that I don't expect to see Obama take credit for.

CNN Reports: Pilgrimage to the Holy City of Washington

I'd heard it referred to as the Immaculate Inauguration of Barack Obama,
but that was meant in jest. Now a CNN report has made a serious comparison of Obama's inauguration to the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. Oh, they made a half-hearted attempt to frame it as a story about crowd control at large events, but clearly CNN likes the idea of the inaugural as religious ceremony.

I like the comparison, too, but I wonder why we don't go the whole nine yards? At Mecca, the pilgrims do more than just passively attend an event. They walk counter-clockwise seven times about the Kaaba, run back and forth between the hills of Al-Safa and Al-Marwah, drink from the Zamam well, go to the plains of Mount Arafat to stand in vigil, and throw stones at three pillars in the city of Mina in a ritual stoning of the devil.

Here's my idea for making Obama's inauguration day a more fully satisfying experience for his devout followers. First, instead of having Obama lead an inaugural parade down Pennsylvania Avenue in front of stationary attendees, let's have the attendees walk around the Washington Mall nines times (it will help them keep warm). Then let's have them run back and fourth between the Washington and Lincoln Memorials, and afterwards stand silently before the Capitol Building. Next, they can drink from the Reflecting Pool (if they dare; have you seen the water in there?). And for the big finale, they can all walk past three pillars symbolizing Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld and throw stones at their political devils.

People would love it, and it would become an annual event.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Passport Peeper to be Penalized

According to U.S. District Court documents posted at The Smoking Gun (read them here), a former State Department employee who improperly satisfied his idle curiosity about the Passport Records of the Rich and Famous has signed a plea agreement admitting to unauthorized computer access.

A former Department of State employee illegally accessed confidential computer files to examine the passport records of 150 "celebrities, actors, musicians, comedians, models, politicians, athletes, members of the media" and others, according to federal court records ... [Dwayne] Cross accessed the passport files over a five-and-a-half year period ending in August 2007, according to one court filing, which noted that he viewed the confidential information out of "idle curiosity" and did not "download, copy, print, forward, share, market, sell, or otherwise disseminate" the records.

I wonder how often unauthorized peeping happens at the Internal Revenue Service? Their records must be a whole lot more interesting than anything you could find n a passport file.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Improving America's Image Abroad: GAO Gives It a 5 Out of 13

The General Accountability Office (GAO) has rank-ordered the nation's most urgent issues that require action during the first year of the incoming Obama administration, and the result is pretty good news for advocates of a more robust Public Diplomacy. "Improving America's Image Abroad" made it to position #5 on GAO's list, right behind Defense Spending and just ahead of the 2010 Census.

Here is today's Washington Post story on the GAO's press release. The press release itself and GAO's summary of the issue are here and here.

This quote from the GAO summary is the heart of the matter:

Gaps in research data, foreign language capability, staffing, and resources hinder the United States’ ability to best target and communicate with key foreign audiences.

In other words, more money and personnel are needed. As the WaPo story points out, the budget for public diplomacy efforts, which was $358 million for 2008, is a mere pittance to a government that allows its Defense Department to contract out over $100 million for strategic communications services next year in Iraq alone.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Those Were the Times That Tried Men's Souls, 233 Years Ago

(Read it here)

Published anonymously (due to its treasonous content) on January 10th, 1776, Thomas Paine's 43-page pamphlet, Common Sense, became one of the foundational documents of the early American Republic, and of the modern American mind as well.

Paine said in a later treatise that "the moral principle of revolutions is to instruct, not to destroy." And instruct he did, in a long series of works that influenced both the American and French Revolutions. But he never did it better than with his first pamphlet. You may judge how much influence Common Sense had on contemporary events by the fact that it sold 500,000 copies during 1776 alone, when there were only 2.5 million people living in all 13 colonies.

Has any other piece of propaganda [and I use that word non-pejoratively, since I think it's more forthright than the rather euphemistic P-word synonyms that replaced it, e.g., psychological operations, political warfare, perception management, or even public diplomacy] since 1776 been remotely as successful?

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Live Web Cam From Gaza

Click here, and it should open in Windows Media Player.

Maybe Obama Can Blame Dennis Ross on Hillary

If he can't, President-Elect Obama has just lost an overseas absentee voter. The news that Dennis Ross will be the Obama administration's special envoy to the Middle East has brought on a case of buyer's remorse with this Palestinian-American commentator.

The prospect of Ross continuing in his long-accustomed role as Ambassador-at-Large to the Middle East does not fill Daoud Kuttab with hope, to put it mildly, and Ross certainly does not offer change.

Friday, January 9, 2009

New Link: Website of the Saudi Arabian Religious Police

I've added a new link to my sidebar, one that connects to a Google language tools translation into English of the official website of the Saudi Arabian General Presidency for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, commonly known as the "Mutaween" or Religious Police.

I've been looking at that Arabic-only site for years, trying to puzzle out the meaning of its articles. Finally, it struck me that you can translate websites via Google's language tools and - voila! - now I can read it at last.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Surprise All Around at the Panetta Announcement

I wasn't the only one surprised by the Leon Panetta announcement.

CNN interviewed this lady who was just as puzzled, and she doesn't seem at all pleased:

“I was not informed about the selection of Leon Panetta to be the CIA Director. I know nothing about this, other than what I’ve read,” Feinstein said in a statement. “My position has consistently been that I believe the Agency is best-served by having an intelligence professional in charge at this time.”

"We Used to Pass Out Ammunition, Now We Trade Medications"

Diplopundit noted a wonderfully snarky remark made by a junior Diplomatic Security Special Agent (see Insider Quote), which he provided for a thesis on the topic of the State Department's use of private security contractors in Iraq.

According to "DS Special Agent #4":

"These senior agents [TSB note: referring to DS managers who are insufficiently appreciative of #4] need to understand that if they have to refer to an incident that occurred during the Reagan or Carter administration as an example of their work in a high threat environment, then they need to do a tour in Iraq.”

I share his concern. I feel his pain. But mostly I'm laughing so hard at this example of the DS generation gap that I might lose my dentures or spill my Metamucil. Touche, #4.

As a non-agent, but nonetheless a close observer of the Diplomatic Security Service since the 'Inman 80s,' my personal take on the situation is that DSS divides into what I think of as the "Speed Loader Generation" and the "Cargo Pants Generation." I think of them that way because I've rarely, if ever, seen cargo pants worn by an agent old enough to have once used a speed loader, or a speed loader used by a young agent.

[For the information of whippersnappers like #4, a "speed loader" was a primitive device used to quickly reload revolvers; and "revolvers" are those funny-looking round guns that you see today mostly in old black and white detective movies. Amazing as it now seems, speed loaders were actually restricted sale items in the Carter/Reagan era, and they were about as fancy as police equipment got back then.]

The generation gap in DSS is due to a history of uneven new agent intakes. There was a huge burst of hiring during the Inman program of the mid- to late-1980s, followed by a dearth of new hires during the 1990s, followed in turn by another flurry of hiring after 1998. This produced a distortion in the workforce, two demographic bulges roughly 20 years apart. The situation has been exacerbated by the need to assign lots of the younger agents to run around after private security contractors at the high threat posts, experience which does not prepare them well for normal DS agent duty as Regional Security Officers.

The generation gap works both ways, of course. I've heard senior agents, men in my greying peer group, refer to their juniors as immature and "gear-queer." I can sympathize a little with both sides of the divide, having once been a trigger-happy young punk myself in my Army days, and then, a few years later, having led young(er) punk troops when my 28 year-old self provided the adult supervision for an antiterrorism/force protection unit.

The gap presents a serious problem for both cohorts of agents. The young guys need better-rounded 'normal' work experiences, and the old geezers certainly don't want to have to keep up with the Blackwater types in Iraq. So, I say in the spirit of Rodney King, "can't we all just get along?" Adopt the many good recommendations for more rational management of private protection contractors that were made in that thesis linked above, and reward those young punks like #4 who have paid their dues in Iraq and deserve to get developmental tours at normal posts.

There. I hope that problem is now solved, because Matlock is on TV and I need to go find by bifocals.


By the way, the title of this post ["We used to pass out ammunition, now we trade medications"] is a remark made by a DS agent friend of mine as he looked around at the balding heads gathered at his retirement luncheon.

Leon Panetta? Really?

This news leaves me puzzled. Leon Panetta is a former California Congressman, former OMB Director, former Clinton White House Chief of Staff and former lawyer. He's currently the head of a public policy institute. He gives every indication of being an all-around nice guy. I once worked on an inter agency task force that reported to him when he was Chief of Staff, and I got no bad vibes from him. But I'm at a loss to see what background or experience he has that's pertinent to the job of CIA Director.

According to his Wikipedia entry, Panetta "was chief of operations and planning of the intelligence section" at Fort Ord, California, during his Army service (1964-1966). Also, he's wearing a trench coat in the photo that accompanied the New York Times story, and, when photographed from certain angles, he looks kind of sneaky. Beyond that, what recommends him to be CIA Director?

Saturday, January 3, 2009

I'm (Virtually) Speechless

According to the Washington Post (O Brave New World That Has Such Avatars in It! Arlington Among Entities Making a Virtual Presence, Arlington County, Virginia, has geeks hard at work creating a virtual world of government bureaucracy. As if government isn't already surrealistic enough.

Some quotes from the story:

The virtual world Second Life, a landscape of primping avatars, ballroom dancing bears, space stations and vampire castles, has a new -- and maybe even more surreal -- inhabitant: the Arlington County government.

The county's cyber-office, on the first floor of a virtual glass-and-steel tower, sits behind tinted sliding doors, across from a vending machine that sells digital Cheez-Its and Pop-Tarts. Visitors can take a seat in swiveling office chairs and scan understated orange and gray promotional posters ("brainpower: arlington's alternative energy") as they wait to meet with an economic development official.

- snip -

While the setting is cyber, the economic development official behind the site is real. John Feather, 53, has been volunteering his time to create Arlington's online presence, which he hopes will give the county another way to sell itself to tech-savvy businesses.

"People can come and get a real sense of not only what Arlington is now, but of what Arlington will be," Feather said. "If we are at least here struggling with everyone else, that kind of says something about us."

-snip -

[T]he Washington area has become home to creative efforts to move government toward such realms.

The Bethesda-based National Library of Medicine, for instance, has created in Second Life a potentially noxious world of everyday health hazards called Tox Town, where clicking on a tower in a dusty construction site produces a list of the chemical properties of neighborhood runoff.

At the University of the District of Columbia, criminal justice students practice investigations and patrols and deal with such imaginary perp behavior as the attempted theft of Professor Angelyn Flowers's pink convertible. Other designers have created in Second Life a virtual Capitol Hill, where plans are afoot for a white-tie inaugural ball Jan. 20. Instructions are forthcoming on how to find a good tux.

"There will be music. There will be dancing. There will be socializing. There will be virtual punch," said Steve Nelson, executive partner of Clear Ink, a Berkeley, Calif.-based Internet firm that built the cyber Capitol Hill. "The idea is after they leave [the ball], they actually feel like they participated somehow."

- snip -

What could the county do with its space? One idea is hosting a job fair in the virtual world for defense workers who don't want to move from Arlington as part of a massive realignment of Defense Department jobs. The anonymity of avatars could be very useful for those who wish to job hunt discreetly.

So, I could enter Arlington County's Second Life virtual world and ... do what? Go to a job fair, attend a meeting with a government official, research toxic chemicals and so forth? That's the kind of thing I do all day in Real Life. Why should I do it in Second Life, as well? I prefer to spend my virtual time doing more entertaining things, such as crashing cars in Grand Theft Auto or going a few rounds with my kids in Wii Boxing (where the Old Man can still deliver quite a cyber beat down).

The whole idea of virtual government seems like something out of the 22nd episode of The Simpsons ("They Saved Lisa's Brain"), in which a Mensa group took over the city of Springfield. The Comic Book Guy - who is exactly the type I would expect to find populating Second Life - rewrote jury duty notices to read something like:

"You have been selected to join the Springfield Justice League. Rendezvous with us at 8 AM Monday in the Municipal Fortress of Vengeance (formerly known as the Courthouse)."

Virtual government would make perfect sense to the Comic Book Guy and his cohort of online role-playing obsessives - oh, by the way, enjoy that virtual inaugural ball, guys - but I suspect it would leave everyone else flummoxed.

Assuming Arlington County doesn't just give the whole thing up as a bad idea, I have a suggestion for its virtual world. They ought to allow people to fight parking tickets in a virtual traffic court, complete with Second Life lawyers, cops, and judges. If I know my Comic Book Guys, that could easily be as entertaining as any computer game.