Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Must ... Break ... Lock ... Somehow

I think there must be something about being in a mob that makes a person stupid, or stupider.

Take, for instance, those two Iranian students, or Basiji militiamen or whatever they are, who tried to force open the gate of the British Embassy in Tehran yesterday. The gate was being held shut by a length of chain wrapped around the two leafs of the gate and secured with an ordinary padlock. The two students - and I think they really are students, judging by their complete lack of mechanical aptitude - tried repeatedly to break the lock off using two little spindly sticks.

They could have popped the padlock in two seconds with bolt cutters, or cut the chain with a hacksaw, or shimmed the lock open. All quick and easy methods that require no more sophistication than a junkie burglar would possess. But, no. Instead, these regime supporters decided to poke at the brass lock with sticks. Good luck with that.

Honestly, it looked like the Dawn of Man scene in 2001 - A Space Odyssey, where the apes are trying to learn the use of tools. The biggest difference was the lack of that great Also Sprach Zarathustra sound track. That, and the fact that the apes figured it out in only two minutes and 17 seconds, whereas the Iranians had made no progress at all by the end of this three-minute video clip.

Somebody got the gate open eventually, but I doubt it was those two. I wouldn't be surprised if it was one of the regime's riot cops who did it, out of pity or impatience.

The New York Times has a lot of good coverage of yesterday's mob invasion in the Lede blog. No British diplomats were killed or injured, so in the end it was all just good clean fun.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Pepper Spray: Better Than A Wood Shampoo, But Still Too Much For Some

The casual manner in which the University of California campus police sprayed those protesters reminds me of myself watering the shrubs around my house. It definitely wasn't an instance of self-defense, and it might just have political consequences that won't go away with a little water and a few minutes in the open air.

The New York Times has an article today about the fallout that could result from police forces using pepper spray as a compliance tool rather than as a less-than-lethal option for self-defense.

As pepper spray has become ubiquitous in this country over the last two decades, it has not raised many eyebrows. But now, after images of the campus police at the University of California, Davis, spraying the Kool-Aid-colored orange compound on docile protesters on Friday, pepper spray is a topic of national debate.

It has become the crowd-control measure of choice lately by police departments from New York to Denver to Portland, Ore., as they counter protests by the Occupy Wall Street movement.

-- snip --

To Kamran Loghman, who helped develop pepper spray into a weapons-grade material with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the 1980s, the incident at Davis violated his original intent.

“I have never seen such an inappropriate and improper use of chemical agents,” Mr. Loghman said in an interview.

Mr. Loghman, who also helped develop guidelines for police departments using the spray, said that use-of-force manuals generally advise that pepper spray is appropriate only if a person is physically threatening a police officer or another person.

The last time we had prolonged civil disturbances in the U.S., in the late 60s and early 70s, police didn't have any riot control chemical agents that were as selective as pepper spray. Back then it was tear gas grenades, and they could indiscriminately effect an acre or so of demonstrators and bystanders. I don't recall any great controversy about them, but maybe that was because they were pretty much the only alternative to wedge formations of police swinging long wooden riot batons.

Such wonderful memories! When we trained at doing the 'stomp and drag' in Military Police School, our instructors told us to swing our batons for the feet because hippies wear sandals. I see that the feet are still the preferred target area, according to page 68 of this Field Manual, and that hitting the head with a riot baton - AKA a 'wood shampoo' - is still strictly prohibited, so apparently some things never change.

Being doused with pepper spray sounds to me like a good alternative to getting your toes smashed. However, I don't think today's elected officials, or juries, will take such a pragmatic attitude.

The NYT quoted Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University who is studying the social impact of pepper spray incidents such as that at UC Davis:

Those jarring images ... were a reminder that “this is a new generation of subduing people, and while the decision to use it may not be right,” he added, “we are in the age of pepper spray, not the age of real bullets.”

Maybe someday somebody will invent a Nerf ball tool for dispersing rioters and non-violent demonstrators, but until then, it will hurt when you get hit.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act Signed

The U.S. Peace Corps has experienced a large number of assaults on its volunteers overseas, especially sexual assaults, more than one thousand of which were reported between 2000 and 2009 out of a volunteer population that barely exceeded 8,000 in any of those years. And the Peace Corps as an institution has been accused of not handling volunteer safety and security well.

Yesterday, the Peace Corps Director announced that:

President Obama [has] signed into law the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act of 2011, codifying a number of the reforms the Peace Corps has put into place over the past two years to better protect and support Volunteers. The Act is named in honor of Kate Puzey, a Peace Corps volunteer who died while serving in Benin in 2009.

The new law codifies and expands many of the reforms the agency has put in place to enhance safety and security and ensure compassionate and effective response and support to all volunteers. The Peace Corps has:

• Hired a nationally recognized leader in victims’ rights to serve as the agency’s first victim advocate. Victims of crime can now turn to a skilled and experienced Peace Corps staff member dedicated to making certain volunteers receive the emotional, medical, legal, and other support they need both during and after their service.

Updated and expanded training for volunteers and staff on sexual assault awareness, risk-reduction strategies, bystander intervention, and reporting and response procedures.

Created an external body of leading experts in the field of sexual assault and returned Peace Corps volunteers to provide advice on Peace Corps’ sexual assault risk reduction and response strategies.

Established procedures to ensure that allegations by Peace Corps volunteers are handled confidentially and appropriately.

You can read the bill at the Library of Congress website, here.

In addition to codifying measures the Peace Corps already has in place, the law also creates a new requirement that will involve Diplomatic Security more directly with the safety and security of PC volunteers.


(a) IN GENERAL.— Not later than 180 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Director of the Peace Corps shall consult with the Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security and enter into a memorandum of understanding that specifies the duties and obligations of the Peace Corps and the Bureau of Diplomatic Security of the Department of State with respect to the protection of Peace Corps volunteers and staff members serving in foreign countries, including with respect to investigations of safety and security incidents and crimes committed against volunteers and staff members.

This MOU will be something to watch. Exactly what duties and obligations concerning Peace Corps volunteers will DS pick up? And how much can anyone really do about volunteer safety and security, given the very isolated nature of volunteer assignments?

Egypt's Homeland Security - The Sincerest Form Of Flattery?

H/T to gwb for sending me a link that led to this tidbit in a Financial Times article about ongoing political repression in Egypt - Egypt state security feelers still active (registration required by FT):

After some initial moves to purge the security forces, attempts at systemic reform were halted, say analysts and political observers. Under the auspices of the Ministry of Interior, the 100,000-strong state security service has been renamed homeland security and personnel moved around.

I can't believe the Egyptian secret police are actually copying the infelicitous name we gave to DHS. Maybe something got lost in translation.

Does the phrase "homeland security" sound innocuous in Arabic? Or does it have the same unfortunate association with European fascism that it has in English, where "homeland" is a second cousin to "Fatherland?" I'm afraid I'll find out it's the latter.

On second thought, the old name was perfect: the Egyptian State Security Investigations Service. If they need to rebrand, the name "Stasi" is available, and would really suit the situation perfectly.

Monday, November 21, 2011

CG Dubai Moves To More Horizontal Surroundings

Consulate General Dubai used to be embedded in a small part of this high-rise office tower, which I believe is the largest and most populous in the Middle East. But now, CG Dubai has its own nice, new, secure and sustainable Fortress inside Dubai's diplomatic enclave.

U.S. Dedicates New Consulate Compound in Dubai, United Arab Emirates:

The multi-building complex, featuring a Consulate Office Building with an interior atrium and a multimedia center, has quickly become a platform to increase U.S. interaction with the Emirati people. The Consulate’s permanent art collection celebrates the exchange of artistic expression between the United States and the UAE through work by contemporary Emirati, American, and regional artists, curated by OBO’s Office of Art in Embassies. Occupying a six-acre site in the heart of Dubai’s diplomatic enclave on the Dubai Creek, the new facility creates a secure, sustainable, and pleasant workplace for approximately 280 employees.

The new Consulate incorporates numerous sustainable features, most notably solar hot water as well as zero use of potable water for irrigation. The facility is registered with the Green Building Certification Institute and is entering the formal review process with enough credits to earn a LEED Gold rating. B.L. Harbert International of Birmingham, Alabama constructed the project, which was designed by Page Southerland Page of Arlington, Virginia. The $147 million project generated jobs in both the United States and UAE.

I notice that OBO and the post have managed to keep photos of the completed new facility off of the internets, for now. If you're curious about what the new place looks like, you can view pastel watercolor artist renderings full of smiling people - a major part of every architect's portfolio - here. A new embassy or consulate never looks as good in real life as it does in those pretty paintings, so take what you see there and dial it down about 20%.

The press release goes on to note:

Since the 1999 enactment of the Secure Embassy Construction and Counterterrorism Act, the Department has moved more than 26,000 people into safer facilities. OBO has completed 87 diplomatic facilities and has an additional 41 projects in design or construction.

You can see photos of those completed new facilities here on OBO's website, in a sort of Fortress Embassies On Parade slideshow.

Friday, November 18, 2011

American Centers vs Fortress Embassies

Photo - The Archer K. Blood American Center Library at the American Center, Dhaka, Bangladesh (from Embassy website)

Consumer Notice: This post is certified 100% free of Matters of Official Concern that are not referenced from publicly available sources of information.

H/T to John Brown's Press and Blog Review for posting a link to the agenda transcript for the May 2011 Public Meeting of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy.

Check the date of that meeting - May 2011. And yet the transcript was only released a couple days ago. Did it take that long to clear the publication? Better late than never.

One part of the transcript piqued my own personal special interest. In the presentation by Ms. Betsy Whitaker, Strategic Communications Officer, Office of the Under Secretary of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, she remarked on the ongoing attempts to maintain some public diplomacy outreach facilities outside of the Department's famously forbidding Fortress Embassies:

American Spaces are clearly an area of great importance to generations of public diplomacy officers, and platforms of course that can be used sometimes as a sort of politically neutral venue where people can gather and simply learn about the United States through a variety of different media, and also interpersonal interaction.

We have, with, again, the assistance of IIP, created an office for the support of American Centers. In fact, we have the acting director over here, Anne Barbaro. And in working with IIP, we have also worked very, very hard for 18 months now, I think, to create a very good working relationship with our colleagues in Diplomatic Security and the Overseas Building Operations Bureau.

Why? Because we have sought, and I think are gradually achieving, an all-of-department approach to these spaces. DS clearly we need as a partner as we – because one of the reasons, as you know, that many of these centers have been shuttered or called back or pulled back behind embassy gates is simply because of security concerns.

And what we have been doing with OBO is twofold. One, as posts are anticipating the construction of new embassy compounds or new consulate compounds, working with the mission, if it has been part of the planning discussion to think about bringing some of these centers and spaces back in with the rest of the mission, we’re simply asking people just to stop for a second and ask the question, is this a wise move in terms of our outreach, and, you know, is this absolutely necessary in terms of security?

Let me be clear: Under Secretary McHale says security trumps all. And if it is indicated that these facilities must be brought – relocated or brought behind a fortified line of some sort, she of course understands that. But I think what she’s asking is for people just to simply stop and think and consider this, consider whether or not the mission would be interested in coming in for what we call a co-location waiver, whether or not there is a circumstance in which that space could be apart from the mission offices and such.

And we’ve had some good luck. We’ve had a couple of waivers granted in the past year, one in Ouagadougou I recall. And, you know, others are coming in as our missions – and this is, again, an all-of-missions thing – the chief of mission must sign off on these requests – as missions decide, you know, whether or not they’d like to make the request for a co-location waiver.

The issue here is the legal requirement that all U.S. diplomatic offices abroad be collocated on a single embassy compound in the principal place of USG business in that city. You can read all about it here, in 12 FAM 300. The requirement is invoked whenever a new embassy office facility is constructed or acquired.

(By the way, "collocation" is the correct spelling of the word, with two "l"s and no hyphen, although it is almost always misspelled as "co-location." That misspelling is my pet peeve, and correcting it is my lost cause.)

The collocation requirement may be waived, and so the R Bureau routinely puts up a fight to keep public diplomacy outreach facilities outside whenever new embassy compounds are planned. The position as Ms. Whitaker stated it, i.e., that the Department ought to consider waiving the collocation requirement on a case-by-case basis, is impeccably reasonable. This is basic risk management. The program benefits of making public diplomacy facilities easily accessible to the public can, in a rational world, be articulated and weighed against the security risks, and the increased security costs, of having a comparatively 'soft target' official facility in an annex across town from a new embassy compound.

Let the Ambassador make the request, and let the Secretary decide. Everyone signs on the dotted line, and accountability is established. Fair enough.

My personal interest in this matter is only indirectly with public diplomacy, in that I liked the old independent American Libraries and think they ought to be brought back into the mix of PD platforms, but I am directly interested in good risk management. As the wise man who hired me for my first job in DS said when he gave me the Foreign Affairs Handbook that contained our security standards: "These are the standards, but, of course, they have to be applied by reasoning human beings." I have always tried to apply reason to them, and I find they are much more persuasive that way.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Boston Illegal: Uncle Omar Goes To Court

Onyango "Uncle Omar" Obama, that distant-but-not-distant-enough Kenyan relative of President Obama, appeared in Framingham Mass District Court today and filed a motion to suppress evidence from his drunk driving arrest last August. He's going to argue that his arrest was improper and therefore his subsequent search was unconstitutional. Meanwhile, he remains free and continues to be employed at a Framingham liquor store (photo above, courtesy of tmz.com).

The stakes are high. Since Uncle Omar is an illegal alien and federal fugitive with an outstanding deportation order hanging over his head, his conviction on a drunk driving charge could threaten, however implausibly, to end his long sojourn in America.

I've posted about Uncle Omar before, as well as about his charming sister "Aunt Zeituni," both of them long-time illegal residents of the Boston area. Zeituni's own deportation from the USA was finally avoided when she was granted political asylum on her third try. Hint-hint, nudge-nudge, wink-wink.

By coincidence, I just finished reading an excellent biography of President Obama's father (The Other Barack) written by Boston Globe reporter Sally Jacobs. She untangles the complicated family tree that connects the Onyango siblings to our chief executive, and also explains why they are so drawn to the Boston area. It turns out that both Massachusetts and alcohol abuse are reoccurring themes in the history of the elder Obama and his fragmented family.

Bad Boys, Bad Boys, Whatchagonna Do When The Kingdom Comes For You?

H/T to Crossroads Arabia for posting news of this development.

[T]he Saudi government is going to establish its own bureau of Diplomatic Security, Saudi Gazette reports. The move seems to be setting up an office somewhat similar in its mission to that of the US State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) in that it will protect missions and diplomats abroad as well as foreign missions within the Kingdom.

The Saudi Gazette story is linked in the Crossroads post, and it says:

The government is setting up a special security unit to protect Saudi ambassadors and diplomatic missions abroad. The unit will also be responsible for providing protection to foreign diplomatic missions in the Kingdom.

Teams of commandos, officers and non-commissioned officers will be trained specifically for the unit known as the “Special Forces for Diplomatic Security”.

It will fall under the Ministry of Interior, said Al-Hayat Arabic daily, quoting informed sources.

This new unit sounds similar to DSS in that it will protect Saudi Ambassadors and diplomatic missions abroad, however, I suspect its function might be limited to personal protection, i.e., bodyguard stuff, rather than encompassing the full range of security responsibilities. The fact that the unit will be located in the Ministry of Interior - the police and counterterrorism arm of the Kingdom - rather than in the Foreign Ministry, reinforces my assumption that this is more of a bodyguard and armed response force.

Of course, this being a Kingdom Of Saudi Arabia operation, the unit will lack for nothing in the way of hardware and resources:

Members of the unit will be armed with the latest sophisticated weapons.

They will be trained to protect diplomatic facilities and residences, and escort ambassadors on official business.

They will also have special training in anti-terrorism methods and air-borne exercises and drive special armored vehicles used to guard diplomats and missions.

With all that stuff, the Kingdom ought to field a totally kick-ass DSS equivalent unit. Not unlike the 2007 movie, only without a Jennifer Garner equivalent, I assume.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

All Aboard The Tequila Train!

I don't know what ad man came up with this pitch, but he must have juevos in both hands to even attempt to draw gringo tourists back to Mexico. And especially to Guadalajara, the lovely city that is likely to become the next hotspot in Mexico's drug wars.

The National Chamber of Commerce, Services and Tourism, Guadalajara cordially welcomes you to experience our legendary train ride that is our pride and joy: The Tequila Express.

Culture, diversion, entertainment and much more is in store on this magical journey. We invite you to discover it.

Come aboard and immerse yourself in Mexico’s past! Let’s begin!

Will the attractions of tequila and Mariachi music draw tourists back to a region where the Sinaloa cartel and Los Zetas are battling each other with drive-by shootings, kidnappings, and beheadings? Not to mention the Mexican government's response to the drug wars, which is credibly alleged to include systematic torture, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings.

I wish the Guadalajara boosters well, but, as much as I'd like to see the place again, I think I'll plan my next vacation for somewhere north of the border.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

No "Silly Shirt" Group Photo For APEC Honolulu

And so a grand tradition ends - poof - just like that. The leaders of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum are off the hook this year, and will not have to do the customary, cringe-inducing, Native Costume group photo.

I think the "silly shirt" thing brought a welcome touch of the Monty Pythonesque to the last twenty APEC meetings, but apparently someone thinks otherwise.

Costume Shot Unnecessary, Obama Says:

To the chagrin of White House photographers but the relief of the 21 leaders at the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum that took place over the weekend, President Obama, as the host this year, may have packed away for good the two-decade tradition of having the group pose for a “family photo” in some garb representative of the host country.

-- snip --

It was hard to imagine that Mr. Obama — he of cool reserve, given to unflashy white shirts and plain ties — would ever submit to such apparel. And indeed, the president confirmed late Saturday at a luau for the leaders that he was giving them Hawaiian shirts, but that they could wear business suits for their photo.

Business suits? Wearing a business suit in Hawaii ought to be a crime. If ever there was a venue that cried out for the extremely casual, it is Hawaii.

Obama is such a drag. Nothing at all like Bill Clinton, who started the whole costume shot thing twenty years ago in Seattle. Now that was a President who was always the life of the party.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised Taxed

Occupy Wall Street has reportedly received about $500,000 in donations so far, which is an interesting amount of capital for a bunch of anti-capitalism demonstrators to compile in about six weeks. And you know what that means. Inevitably, there has been fighting over the money that belongs to this avowedly leaderless movement:

Occupy Wall Street is awash with cash, some $500,000 by one estimate, thanks to generous donations. However, questions about spending that money have provoked controversy among the people who have gathered at Zuccotti Park to protest greed. Various groups of people are finding that the utopian society that they have created comes with bureaucratic red tape.

There is a Finance Committee that grabs as much of the money it can and is reluctant to dole it out. That sounds very much like the government outside Zuccotti Park. In effect, the Occupy Wall Street protestors are finding out that their taxes are too high.

Speaking of taxes, who does the IRS see about getting its slice of OWS's $500,000?

Nobody, that's who. OWS has hired a certified 501(c)3 non-profit entity to receive and disperse its money, which makes OWS's stash non-taxable to them and tax-deductible by the donors. Their 'fair share' of the nation's tax burden, then, is zero.

The tax haven for OWS is the Alliance for Global Justice, which explains the relationship this way:

What do OWS and our other fiscally sponsored projects get out of the relationship? They get additional accounting and administrative staff support and advice. They get to offer their donors tax-deductions for their donations. They get online donation capacity and staff to process and deposit donation checks as well as to send the IRS-required form for donations of $250 or more. They don’t have to worry about IRS forms and deadlines. They are covered by our liability insurance. If they have paid staff, which OWS does not, we handle their payroll and enroll them in our group health policy. For an organization like United Students Against Sweatshops, which rotates an entirely new staff in every couple of years, we provide continuity and organizational memory.

Many supporters ask if AFGJ takes a portion of the donations. We charge a relatively low rate for fiscal sponsorship, at a flat 7% of all money that passes through our channels for processing.

It's a good thing all these guys are part of the 99%, otherwise that could be called greed and corruption.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Wartime Contracting Commission Records To Be Sealed

The Project on Government Oversight (POGO) blog noted yesterday that the records of the Wartime Contracting Commisssion, that watchdog on government fraud, waste, and mismanagement in Iraq and Afghanistan, will soon be sealed and put beyond access by the public.

Wartime Contracting Commission's Move to Seal Records for 20 Years: Just Plain Wrong:

The recently dissolved Commission on Wartime Contracting (CWC) did just about everything right. Created in the spirit of the Truman Commission, the CWC identified as much as $60 billion in contracting-related waste and fraud in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the process, the CWC held 25 hearings, released 8 reports, and published detailed recommendations intended to prevent waste and fraud from occurring in future overseas contingencies. Perhaps most important, the bipartisan commission was unanimous in its findings and recommendations, notable in a city known for its partisan gridlock.

But the Commission’s decision to seal its internal records for 20 years is just plain wrong. The decision, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, blocks the public and watchdog groups from using the CWC’s source material to build upon the important work of the Commission and to help prevent waste and fraud in overseas contingency contracting in the near term.

Clark Irwin, the CWC’s spokesman, told the Wall Street Journal the seal was justified because “there is sensitive information in there.” He cited proprietary company information, attorney work products, and classified documents as examples of such records. Another source told the Journal that the expectation that the CWC’s records would be sealed was necessary to encourage sources to speak candidly.

But Irwin’s argument ignores the fact that documents are only released by the National Archives after first going through an extensive vetting process. So whether the seal is 20 years, 20 days, or even if there were no seal at all, the truly sensitive material would be redacted or withheld.

Sources close to the CWC have told POGO that the commissioners agreed to the 20-year seal after being informed that it was standard practice. But 20 years doesn’t appear to be anywhere near standard. Congress has created six investigative commissions in the last 20 years, the most well known being the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (9/11 Commission).

The 9/11 Commission, which investigated issues of the most sensitive nature, sealed its records for just five years. And even that length of time seemed too long for Thomas Kean, the 9/11 Commission Chairman, who “said publicly that he was eager for most of the records to be released as quickly as possible.” He later told Reuters that there was “no justification for withholding most of the unreleased material.”

As was the case with the 9/11 Commission, the CWC’s records aren’t available under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) because the CWC is a congressional entity and Congress isn’t subject to FOIA. But the public should be able to request from agencies records that those agencies provided to the CWC.

A source told the Wall Street Journal that the “vast majority of the commission's records would put you to sleep.” And that may be true. But until the public has the opportunity to view the documents for ourselves, we can’t be certain of their actual value or use them to make wartime contractors more accountable. We hope Congress takes action to right this wrong by legislating a far shorter seal—or better yet, no seal at all.

There is no good reason to seal the records, and plenty of reasons why the public interest would benefit from making them accessible, especially as the USG ramps up to do even more contracting in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Congress can reverse this decision. Please write to your representatives.